The Satisfaction Treadmill

I’m a third of the way into William B. Irvine’s excellent book, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Irvine “plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.”

The first “Stoic psychological technique” is negative visualization or regularly contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. There are several reasons to practice negative visualization, but the main one is “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”  Psychologists refer to this as hedonic adaptation. We experience hedonic adaptation when we make consumer purchases, in our careers, and in our relationships. Irvine writes, “As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.

He adds: One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. . . . The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

Irvine goes on to contrast two fathers–one who periodically reflects on his child’s mortality and the second who refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. The second father assumes his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father, he concludes, will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second.

So far, I’m down with modern Stoicism. Even though I’m probably more contemplative than the average bear, the notion of a satisfaction treadmill resonants with me. I take things for granted that I know I shouldn’t, especially my health; my family’s health; my material well-being; my work; and a promising future. I experience wake-up calls—the literal phone call of my father’s sudden death tops that list, the death of a neighbor’s child from leukemia, stories of cyclists getting hit and killed, and more subtle nudges like illness, and job loss and home foreclosure stories.

My take-away from the chapter on negative visualization is to be much more intentional about reflecting on the bad things that can, and in many cases ultimately will, happen to me. Stop depending on being surprised by late night emergency phone calls, and instead, make time every day or week to reflect on losing the things I most value—my family’s health, my marriage, my health, our friends, our home.

And, of course, my faithful Pressing Pause readers.

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